The Punisher (Thomas Jane edition)
At least this time he’s wearing the shirt…
2004 was a decent year for comic-book movies, Catwoman excepted. Fans got Hellboy, Blade: Trinity, Spider-Man 2 and The Punisher all in the same year. Between the highs of Spider-Man 2 (which in my opinion has one of the greatest villains ever committed to screen in Dr. Octopus) and the lows of Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Thomas Jane’s The Punisher seems like it got lost in the shuffle. Although he returned in 2012 for the short film The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, Jane didn’t get a bigger shot at the character, being replaced for 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. (He’s also not appearing in the upcoming season of Daredevil, as the role now belongs to Jon Bernthal). Which is a shame, because Jame did a fantastic job in this pre-MCU serious Marvel movie.
Featuring more of the Punisher mythos than Dolph Lundgren’s 1989 take on the character, in the 2004 Punisher movie Thomas Jane plays FBI agent Frank Castle. On his last job before retirement, Castle participates in a botched drug deal, where the son of mob boss Howard Saint (John Travolta) is killed. Saint blames Castle for his son’t death, and on the advice of his wife, Saint orders Castle’s entire family killed. After the massacre of his family, Castle himself is left for dead. When he recovers from his injuries, he returns to Tampa to kill everyone who murdered his family, ending with Saint.
Given the mostly-goofy nature of current movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s nice to go back to pre-Marvel Films properties and see the different directions other studios took with the characters. While there is some comedy in The Punisher, it’s mostly for atmosphere, and not based on one-liners. In fact, the comedic elements feel a little out of place. Frank Castle is a serious man and The Punisher should be a serious movie. The writers play with the intensity as necessary, watching up the stakes in several well-done scenes. In particular, the scene where Cast;e’s family is murdered is super intense, and I found myself holding my breath several times while watching it.
Besides Jane, the film features many other good actors in supporting roles. Rebecca Romijn, fresh from playing Mystique in the X-Men franchise, is muted here to great effect as Joan, Frank’s neighbor. Will Patton is equally muted (creepily) as Saint’s right-hand man Quentin Glass. The film also continues the tradition of weak Marvel villains, which shockingly enough did not begin with the MCU. John Travolta is very out of place here as mob boss Howard Saint. Travolta tries to be quiet and intimidating, but it doesn’t serve the character very well. There are a few instances when he lashes out, similar to the unhinged character he played in 90s action movie Broken row, and I found myself wishing for more outbursts as the film went on. Travolta can be very good when he wants to be, but in The Punisher he’s dead weight. Thankfully, he doesn’t have a lot of screen time.
Jane had every intention of reprising his role in what would eventually become Punisher: War Zone, only leaving over creative differences after the movie languished in development hell for several years. It’s too bad; Jane brings the right amount of Everyman to Frank Castle. His take on the character is much more relatable than Lundgren’s. Here’s hoping the writers of Netflix’s Daredevil series bring the same humanism to their take on Frank Castle.
Quick summary: After a drug deal goes bad, Howard Saint (John Travolta) orders a hit on Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) and his family. Left for dead, Castle returns to enact vengeance.
Too many writers? Just two, although those two have written some stinkers, such as Ang Lee’s Hulk.
Recommended if you like: The serious side of Marvel.
Better than I expected? Several scenes (such as the massacre of Castle’s family) were intense and had me holding my breath.
Worse than I hoped? At this point, weak Marvel villains are cliche, but c’mon Travolta! You weren’t even trying!
Verdict: Between this one and Lundgren’s turn in the 80s, that’s 2/2 in enjoyable Punisher movies.
Related Reading: The Punisher (Dolph Lundgren edition)